The Sundance Film Festival is just a week away and ComingSoon.net has a first look at one of the movies in the dramatic competition, John Hindman’s Arlen Faber. It stars Jeff Daniels as the title character, the author of the popular spiritual self-help book “Me and God” who has remained in hiding for 20 years. On the eve of the 20th Anniversary, Arlen meets a single mother named Elizabeth (Lauren Graham) and a young man fresh out of rehab (Lou Taylor Pucci), who are looking for the answers they think only Arlen can provide, but he might not be the guy with all the answers they’re expecting.
ComingSoon.net got on the phone with Hindman a couple days ago to talk about the movie; you can read that interview below this exclusive clip:
ComingSoon.net: Will this be your first time at Sundance at all or have you been there before?
John Hindman: This is my very first time at the Sundance Film Festival.
CS: Well, if you’re going to go there, you might as well be there with a film.
Hindman: That’s right. I’m going there for the first time in a right way I think.
CS: Unfortunately, I haven’t seen the movie yet, just the one clip (see above), so how long ago did you write this movie? Was this something you wrote some time ago that you finally got produced or did the process happen fairly quickly?
Hindman: In Hollywood terms, I don’t know how it could have gone any faster. I finished it a couple of years ago literally, and Kevin Messick came on board as the producer and we got financing a year ago and we started shooting in the spring. We spent a little bit of time trying to pick the perfect cast. We chose to cast it first before we looked for financing. That way we could get the people we really wanted in those roles and then try and find someone that agreed with us to the tune of a few million bucks.
CS: When you wrote this, I assume you always wanted to direct this.
Hindman: Yeah, I’ve only wanted to direct movies my whole life and everything’s just about trying to find a way to do that, and about five or six years ago, I started writing screenplays and my hope was to write one that was good enough that I could hold people hostage until they let me direct it. I wrote a couple for myself, I was a writer for hire on one, and with “Arlen Faber,” everything kind of came together.
CS: Cool. I have to ask about the title, because it’s kind of an odd name for a person, I’d think. There aren’t a lot of people named Arlen, so I was wondering how you came to that name for the main character and the movie.
Hindman: (laughs) Well, you know, it’s really hard to come up with names when you’re writing a screenplay. “Arlen” just sounded like an interesting name to me. I have a bunch of kids so I have baby name books lying around and I liked the name “Arlen.” It sounded kind of like a ’40s or ’50s name for a character, and then “Faber” was the brand of pencil that was sitting on my desk. (laughs)
CS: It’s always interesting when you have a movie title based on the character’s name and in this case, I’m not sure people would automatically realize that “Arlen Faber” is the name of a character when they see the title of the movie. I just assumed it was some foreign film.
Hindman: (laughs) Right, yeah. If you would think of it as a name, it’s certainly a movie name. No one really… actually, there’s one guy in the United States, his name is Arlen Faber. I know because the lawyers do all these clearance reports before you start shooting. There’s one guy who’s in his late ’60s, who lives in Minnesota, who actually is named “Arlen Faber.”
CS: Also, when I looked on IMDb, I accidentally found some ’70s actress from exploitation movies called “Arlene Farber.”
Hindman: Yeah, I saw that also.
CS: Where is this story based? I couldn’t really tell from that one clip.
Hindman: It takes place in Philadelphia, which was a great city to shoot in, really perfect for our story. I loved every second that I was there.
CS: That was originally where the story was set and where you planned to shoot?
Hindman: I actually wrote it for San Francisco, because that’s where I’m from, but it’s just too problematic to shoot there, and Philadelphia was just a really nice fit.
CS: I don’t know if you’re particularly religious yourself, but when you first started writing this, were you just fascinated about the people who write these books? What was the main reason why you wanted to write about this particular character?
Hindman: For me, this is really a personal story in that everything that happens in it, I guess you could say is true. It’s 100% metaphorically true. I wanted to write a story about fathers and sons. I wanted to address my relationship with my dad, I wanted to write about surrogate fathers and fathers who are missing, and maybe if there’s a heavenly father? I don’t really know, and I don’t pretend to know. I also wanted to write about someone who is really famous for something that he couldn’t do, and I thought, “What’s the best thing for being famous for?” and that would be having all of the answers that have plagued people for millennia. So I came up with this guy, who is angry at a God that he doesn’t have. He can help everyone except himself. And is really famous for giving people the answers that seem to even elude him. He’s a mysterious figure that noone’s ever met or seen or heard from in 20 years, and we meet him on the eve of the 20th Anniversary of his now famous book, “Me and God.” By the way, note the order of that title. It’s not “God and Me,” you know? That’s when we check in with him and find out that he’s the least spiritual cat on the face of the earth. At the same time, there’s two other characters. There is Elizabeth, played by Lauren Graham, who is a single mom trying to make it with a new business as a chiropractor, and then there’s a kid named Chris, played by Lou Taylor Pucci, who owns a used bookstore, and he’s just gotten out of rehab and he lives with his dad who’s still drinking. It’s basically a romantic comedy about how these three characters get that missing piece that they need to kind of move on in life from each other.
CS: How do those characters find him? Is he just living under an assumed name this whole time and people discover its him or has he literally been secluded in his house for 20 years?
Hindman: He rarely uses his real name. He doesn’t really tell anybody who he is. He walks around in the world, but nobody knows what he looks like, because there aren’t any pictures of him, but if you ask him his name, he’s probably not going to tell you the truth.
CS: Is “Me and God” his only book?
Hindman: Yup, that’s it. Yeah, he’s the J.D. Salingerwho just turned 90 the other day!
CS: I didn’t even realize he was still alive.
Hindman: Yup, still alive, still in hiding.
CS: So you had this character twenty years later and he meets these new people, so do we find out what he’s been doing in those twenty years? Has anything been going on, because he obviously hasn’t been writing?
Hindman: Yeah, you will find out what’s been going on with him for those 20 years but the most important thing about how he’s passed that time is the fact that he’s stuck. All three of these characters are kind of stuck and they need to get unstuck, and usually, that’s not something you can do on your own. You need some help, and they get that from each other, albeit begrudgingly.
CS: From what you’ve told me, this character seems very reclusive, so was Jeff Daniels a natural choice for the part or the first person you approached about it? What was the process for getting him on board?
Hindman: Part of Arlen is sorta tricky in that you need someone that’s got great dramatic chops, almost perfect comic timing, but who’s also believable as a romantic lead, and there aren’t a lot of guys that can do that. Certainly, Jeff Daniels hits the mark on all three of those categories. He’d read it and called me within a couple of days and we talked. I talked to some other actors over the course of exploring who might be right for this, but no one who had his insight into the character. It was as though Jeff had written the screenplay and he was telling me about it. He really got the nuances, he really got how you couldn’t be that angry unless you were able to be as hurt as Arlen was. Also, he knew how to handle the jokes in the screenplay, which is just to not hit them, just to throw them away. I couldn’t believe my luck when he said that he wanted to do it and everything sort of happened from there. Without Jeff Daniels, I would just be a guy who wrote a good screenplay.
CS: It’s funny you should mention that because your screenplay was on the famous year-end “Black List” which is becoming more and more known to the outside world due to the amount of publicity it’s been getting. Was he signed on before your screenplay made the Black List?
Hindman: Yeah, he did. The Black List came out a year ago last month, so that was December 2007, and Jeff and I had talked in June 2007. We were hoping for a fall start for the movie, but circumstances worked against us, so he’d been attached for a good six months before the Black List came out.
CS: Did having that screenplay on the list help get it rolling quicker?
Hindman: We had financing at that point. We had it for about a month and a half, but it certainly helped raise the profile of the movie. We had all the actors at that point. Lauren Graham had also committed to it in June… Olivia Thirlby, Kat Dennings, so we were in pretty good shape, but it was nice to get that hit and get people to refocus on this screenplay since most people had already read it at that time. Let them know that, “Hey! It’s still alive and well out there and we’re actually moving forward.”
CS: What were some of the things Jeff wanted to bring to the character that you felt added to where you saw the character?
Hindman: Jeff is a world-class listener. You can just see him absorbing information. We met several times before we started production, and I would just talk about the character or about my dad. We’d talk about a number of things and Jeff would just furiously take notes. I didn’t know anyone could write that fast. We had breakfast and he had like eight pages of notes and managed to eat. When we got to Philadelphia, we all read through the script together, and he had a couple of questions but he never wanted to change anything. He became such a great partner in the storytelling of it. Our rooms were next to each other and a week before we were going to start shooting, I still had some problems with the last scene. I wasn’t happy with it, and he’d been so great, I didn’t mind showing him a scene that wasn’t finished. I said, “Listen, man, I got this. It’s about 80% done but I don’t know, it’s missing something.” And we worked on it together for an hour and he was so great, man. He would read the lines in character and make different choices and try things, so I’m really proud of that last scene and the fact that we worked on that together. I think of that as “our scene.”
CS: It just seems that the best movies come out of that kind of collaboration.
Hindman: Jeff is such a renaissance guy, like he lives on a lake in Michigan, he’s a writer–he’s written 13 plays, for which he’s won awards–he runs that theater, he plays guitar, he tours as a singer and songwriter, he’s a master actor. The guy’s really amazing. He has such a respect for writers and writing that when we were shooting the movie, he never paraphrased anything that I wrote. Like if there was a comma, you could hear it. I don’t know if I’ll ever get that lucky again, but he spoiled me forever.
CS: I guess you got Olivia Thirlby before she was in “Juno” and “The Wackness”?
Hindman: Olivia had done “Juno” and I’d seen “Juno”; she had done “The Wackness” but I hadn’t seen that. I met with her, it might even have been in January or February I guess. I don’t think I cast that part yet, but someone had given her the script and she had read it flying back to New York from Los Angeles, and I was in New York meeting with DPs. She came in and we talked about it. Usually, you don’t get someone like Olivia Thirlby or Kat Dennings to play a small supporting role in your little indie movie, but she really loved the part. She loved the strange way in which her character ticks, and saw how important that character was to the larger picture of the story. It was a thrill to meet her and an even greater thrill to work with her. I was so happy she wanted to do it at all.
CS: Both her and Kat have been making movies for a while, but they’re turning into this new younger generation of hip leading actresses for indie films.
Hindman: For sure, but yeah, she was great. I have another project that I’ve just about set up before the economy collapsed on us, but I want her to be in that as well.
CS: What were some of the challenges you found while shooting the movie? Just the general money and time things that come with making an independent film or was there anything in the script you were worried about getting on film?
Hindman: I guess the things you think are going to be really difficult turn out to be simple and something that’s supposed to be really easy leaves a huge thorn in your side. There’s one scene where there’s a record that skips and the needle has to skip on the record, and boy that sounds easy, but I swear to God, you’ve never seen nine men sweating more, staring at a needle for an hour, trying to get it to skip in the right way. Little things like that, but overall, man, no B.S. Seriously, it was a pleasure from beginning to end. We got what we needed. I don’t feel that anything is missing. I don’t have any regrets. You need to economize to achieve a workable shooting schedule and there’s a montage and maybe we don’t need three beats with Elizabeth, maybe two will do, so it’s just about whether you can effectively tell a story on film, not about whether you can honor every single word in the screenplay. We had no overtime, we had a happy crew and a happy set, and I miss it, although it is incredibly difficult. I think that difficulty demands a focus from everyone that just kind of makes it a great place to be.
CS: I know you have a background doing stand-up comedy, so I would just assume this is a comedy. From what you’ve told me though, the characters seem to be dealing with some serious issues they’re trying to work out. Can you talk about mixing those two things? First of all, do you see this as a comedy?
Hindman: I see it as a dramatic romantic comedy. Whenever I talk about it, I sort of fail to talk about the humor of it, because of everything I focus on when I’m writing, I just focus on the story and the jokes just sort of seem to come as long as I have the story and the characters worked out. It is funny. There are some great laughs in the movie. Hopefully, some smart laughs. Jeff and everyone in the cast just do a phenomenal job of being funny actors, as opposed to people you have to make it seem funny. So yeah, there’s a lot of jokes in there and there’s also hopefully, some very touching moments. I tried to make these people as real as possible, and I want to laugh with them and at them, both.
CS: Well, you have a great cast and we know that all of them are able to deliver subtle but funny laughs. What are your expectations for Sundance? Have you seen your movie with an audience besides people who worked on it?
Hindman: I have, yeah. We had a couple test audiences in the Village in New York, the East Village Theater I think is what it was called? I don’t know. It all looks like one thing to me. I never know where I am when I’m there.
CS: I’m sure I’d feel the same about L.A.
Hindman: My expectations… geez. Whenever you begin a creative endeavor, whether it’s doing stand-up or writing a screenplay or making a movie, you’re doing it for other people. You can say that you’re doing it for yourself, but really, you’re doing it for other people. Even though you can guess that you may have done a good job, you don’t really know unless somebody else tells you. When somebody says, “You know, man? I loved this.” “Oh, really? That’s great.” I guess that’s what I’m looking forward to the most in Sundance. I want to hear people laugh and I want the rewards that I get for that, for having communicated an idea or a joke or a thought or a sentiment or a feeling to a great number of people. It’s just the most rewarding thing that I can think of. I loved it in stand-up and I love it in the theater. That and I want to hear people sniff. I want to move people. I’d like to make funny beautiful movies, and I’m trying my best to do that. I look forward to people in the audience telling me whether I’ve succeeded or not, because it’s for them.
CS: Well, Sundance is really the best place to do that, because even if you’re making movies for studios, if you don’t get to see your movie with an audience and get to interact with them, I can’t imagine it’s as rewarding or satisfying.
Hindman: Yeah, I don’t know, but I hope to find out.
Hindman’s debut Arlen Farber premieres at the Sundance Film Festival on Sunday, January 18 as part of the festival’s U.S. Dramatic Competition. Look for ComingSoon.net’s festival preview early next week and then coverage of some of the films showing there over the next two weeks.